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"Tharsis" Video Game Review: Has Survival in Space Ever Been This Challenging?

Shane's been gaming for nearly 40 years and loves a broad array of games in addition to being one-quarter of the Assorted Meeples group.

Tharsis is a very unique space survival game that incorporates a very "Roguelite" mentality of extreme fatalities, RNG, and tactical decision-making to bring together a video game unlike any other I have played.

While a simple game on its surface, there's a lot of detail work to be appreciated, and strategic thinking is crucial to have any chance of winning the game. But this space survival game is no joke as injuries, insanity, and even "Cannibalism or starvation?" comes into play.

The start screen is incredibly bare, beautiful, and yet gives that empty sense of foreboding that actually applies very well to the game. Tharsis is named for the peninsula on Mars where your intrepid astronauts are hoping to land to uncover a great mystery, and what the end results will be depend on your skill, your decisions, and maybe some good old fashioned luck, to boot.

Originally released in 2016 on Steam and PS4, and Nintendo Switch in 2020, the game received a lot of attention immediately before a re-release around 2019 that sharpened some features, added content, and created the complete package of a game available now across these same platforms.

Read on for a full Tharsis game review including pros, cons, tips & tricks, and final grade on this unique dice-based space survival game.

The Bare, Foreboding, Beautiful Title Screen Says It All

A hauntingly beautiful opening screen - and bare enough to capture an appropriately foreboding feeling!

A hauntingly beautiful opening screen - and bare enough to capture an appropriately foreboding feeling!

Overview of Tharsis

The story of the game is simple. You are on your way to Mars with a small crew and everything seems to be going well. Then the ship hits a micro-meteorite storm that severely damages the ship and has everyone rushing to keep it from falling apart completely.

This creates the rush to help stop disaster after disaster sometimes letting one capsule or module take permanent damage rather than let a more important part of the ship also fall into disrepair. Food, Water, and First Aid are critical supply caches to help your crew, or at least some of them, to survive the trip to Mars.

There's never enough time to get everything done you want, and even in those rare moments you have a free crewmate there's only so much work that can be done to hedge your bets before another disaster comes along to send you scrambling.

There will almost never be a run where everything goes smoothly, and there are expected disasters that happen after a certain number of turns. The specifics of these disasters are randomized, so you don't know which modules will be hit, who might be hurt, or what the immediate emergency will be when they happen.

Sometimes you get lucky and a module you don't care much about takes most the damage and you can do minimal work to get limping along, sometimes your food and life support is about to explode.

When you have a spare crew member with nothing pressing that turn, where do you put them? Food for future disasters? Healing? Life support? Ship efficiency?

There are always options and you never know which solution will be the right one. And if your dice rolling RNG is really bad...it just might not matter.

Tharsis Can Be Brutal When It Comes to Space Survival

And when things go bad in Tharsis, they tend to go really, really bad!

And when things go bad in Tharsis, they tend to go really, really bad!

The Good

There's a lot to like about what the Tharsis video game brings to the table. This is a challenging game that is going to push even experienced strategy gamers to really hone in to have a chance to win. Every victory, every ending feels earned.

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Although the game is relatively simple with graphics, using a combination of empty spaces and confined spaces to bring home both the urgency and terrifying setting of the game. Facial expressions change as crewmembers struggle with stress and sanity, and the dice take a very interesting change if you are forced into the cannibalism route.

Multiple endings based on how you did demand multiple playthroughs, and different endings are even available based on how well you did, decisions made, and even the difficulty level.

This is a survival game very much unlike others, which gives a great setting and doesn't have space survival as an afterthought while creating a settlement, gathering resources, or playing a thinly hidden 4X game.

This is all about the survival, and it knows what it is, which is part of the strength. In some ways the game seems strangely..."light" for a modern video game and yet I've replayed for a couple dozen hours and tend to come back for a couple hours of gameplay every year or two.

Tharsis is what it is, and it leans into that, which I think is part of the reason it works so well.

Pros of Tharsis:

  • Challenging game you can't just run over
  • Great detail work on the rooms, expressions, and dice
  • Multiple endings - including some stunners
  • Delivers a unique and exciting experience

The Not So Good

As much as there's a lot to love about the positive aspects of the Tharsis video game, it isn't a perfect game. There are some negatives to Tharsis, and it's important to look at those before making a buying decision.

The first is the difficulty level. I don't mind a challenging game when I know what I'm getting into, and that's the attitude you sort of have to take with this game. Even the "Normal" difficulty setting is very difficult and can wreck a lot of early attempts to run through the game as you learn the in-ship mechanics and how to manage your ship and crew.

RNG is always infuriating on some level. This isn't meme-worthy "adjusted RNG" of Battle Brothers infamy, but it can be brutal. You can do everything right and still lose and anyone who lost an astronaut because "There's no way I'll roll THREE fives in four dice," and then do it, you get the anger.

I think the difficulty level is a plus, but some may find it a negative. As described before, even at "basic" normal difficulty levels this is brutal. For some gamers that's a plus but I understand gamers who put that as a negative.

The biggest con, and it is a fair point, is that this is a short game. Getting one run through can happen in just a few hours while going through all the endings will take most gamers less than 20 with most of those hours spent on trying to get the full survivor run on the hardest difficulty level.

For a full-price game, that can admittedly be a hard sell.

Cons of Tharsis

  • The RNG can be infuriating
  • Even "normal" difficulty level is excessively difficult
  • Short game with only so many hours of gameplay
  • Not everyone's cup of tea as far as games go

R.I.P. Dead Astronauts...Maybe Try Again?

And things can go terribly, terribly wrong.

And things can go terribly, terribly wrong.

Tharsis Tips & Strategy

Tharsis is a very difficult game, and the RNG can be stunningly unforgiving (as can all luck with dice rolls), but it is by no means impossible. While following optimal gameplay and optimal strategy definitely increases your chances of winning any given run through, it's never a guarantee.

A few tips to help struggling beginners:

  1. Don't underestimate the benefit of building up science early on. Those extra dice rolls can make a huge difference when things start going sideways!
  2. Plan ahead for food. You won't always be able to cultivate food on a turn, so you had better be on top of feeding everyone!
  3. As you unlock professions pay attention to the Engineer, Specialist, and Commander, all of whose abilities are often potentially game-changing on any run.
  4. If you have the pilot, sprint him through damage to do repairs that might be out of reach of your other crewmates. His abilities are niche but when you need them, they're huge.
  5. Plan out your turn. The turn phase is new emergencies compounding on old ones that were unfixed, and then you get to move all your guys. Look at what you can do well, what needs to be done now, and plan out the turn. What looks like an obvious first move with one character might turn out to be a fatal mistake that could have been avoided when you stepped back to see what everyone else could, and couldn't do.

Have fun with the process! You're going to die a lot in the beginning, but it doesn't take you long to figure out the mechanics, the gameplay, and get a feel for how an individual run is going.

Which brings me to my bonus Tharsis strategy tip that is more for experienced players with a few hours under their belts, and that's this: Make the call on cannibalism early.

Generally speaking you can know fairly early on in a run if you have a fighting chance without sacrificing a crewmate, or if you are living on wisps of hopes, prayers, and delusions without it. If things are going bad, the earlier you make that call the more likely you are to pull out of a spiral and eventually reach Mars.

Corrupt Overlord's Early Streaming Playthrough of Tharsis

So What's the Final Verdict?

There's a lot to like about Tharsis, and if we're being honest, there are some negatives about Tharsis that are impossible to ignore. Overall, to me it's a B+ experience but it's one that comes with a very important caveat: you have to be prepared for the game experience it's going to deliver.

The dice means everything is always at chance, especially at higher levels of difficulty, and it's stacked against you. You will fail many, many times until getting a good run with a little luck to have success. As long as you can deal with unforgiving RNG, enjoy dark survival games with cannibal themes, and can deal with bad runs where you get kicked on the ground repeatedly, the experience is great.

If you're just not in the mood...it's not a great grab.

However, the challenge makes every single small victory seem huge, and the rare clean run feel like a God-Tier accomplishment. The limited graphics are still done well, the detail work is fantastic, and the multiple endings are great.

The additional scenarios add in an amazing amount of fun and make this a rock solid purchase.

However, if you hit fury each time RNG goes against you or prefer relaxing games, then you would be better off passing on this one.

Overall it's a very good game that is aiming for a narrow niche of gamers, but those who enjoy that experience will delight in it, and every couple years, be quick to dust it off and re-live some of that old glory once again.

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